The Mindy Project: “Harry & Sally”
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The Mindy Project: “Harry & Sally”

Imagine you’re at a dinner party, and the topic of conversation turns to television, and you casually mention that you watched The Mindy Project last night. The host, ignorant to the show’s existence, asks what it’s about.

“Um.” Pause.

Personally, I’m not sure I have an answer to this question, and I just recently—in preparation for filling in for David—watched the handful of episodes that had been sitting on my DVR for the better part of two months. I suppose I could tell you who it’s about—even that runs into some issues, what with the cast shakeups—but I’m struck by how ambivalent the show seems about having a consistent premise. It’s not that the show is failing to communicate or deliver on a particular premise with any consistency. Rather, it’s a show without a status quo, shifting focus with such regularity that there’s no longer a central idea that each episode contributes to.

“Harry & Sally,” if nothing else, seeks to clarify that The Mindy Project is a romantic comedy. The direct references to romantic comedies—so prevalent in the pilot—are back in full force, Mindy’s romantic situation evolves with another former The Office co-star paramour (B.J. Novak), and there’s almost no point at which Mindy’s profession plays any role in the episode. It’s a decision that makes the show easier to comprehend, and it’s no coincidence this is also the episode where Amanda Setton and Anna Camp unceremoniously disappear from the credits. As The Mindy Project continues to shed supporting characters, it becomes a leaner, more sustainable show. It also, if “Harry & Sally” is any indication, has officially become a show that I don’t necessarily care for all that much.

I see what the show is going for as it relates to the tropes of romantic comedy. In “Harry & Sally,” Mindy dates the Harry equivalent—in this case named Jamie, and played by Novak—while living in constant fear that she’s just going to be the stopgap girlfriend who makes him realize that he’s really in love with female best friend Lucy (who is the Sally, of course). Meanwhile, she simultaneously deals with her offscreen hookup with midwife Brendan—a returning Mark Duplass—following last week’s elevator coda. It’s like Mindy’s living in two romantic comedies simultaneously: She runs into a roadblock when she tries to suggest dating Brendan after a hookup, then she meets Jamie at a party and sets up a date with him, then she walks out on that date when Jamie takes a phone call from Lucy, and then runs into Brendan at the movies with a date to then push her back to Jamie at episode’s end.

While I will admit that I share David’s relative disinterest in Duplass’ character, and therefore didn’t really care about the Brendan side of things, I also find Mindy’s dating scenes some of the most consistently effective in the series. Her meet cute with Novak’s character is brief but effective, managing to deal with the “weird” element of the storyline—that two people you would presume are dating are in fact just oddly close “best friends”—while still maintaining some legitimate chemistry. Mindy and Jamie’s date, up until the point it dissolves, is also where the writing feels its sharpest, the characters making a connection that Kaling and Novak—both as writers and actors—managed to inflect with the romantic comedy theme while making it still feel like banter that two actual people making a connection on a first date would have (with the Beckinsale/Butler joke being a particularly effective one in this regard). It reminded me of Mindy’s early banter with Josh—which I also enjoyed as a whole and was part of why I was sad to see that relationship implode—and made a good case for the show focusing more on Mindy’s romantic exploits in the future.

The issue is that the episode as a whole didn’t have the same effect, in part because it all added up to nothing. Now, I’m not suggesting that the show needs a strong serialized component, both because one could argue this episode is actually quite serialized—picking up on Duplass’ character, introducing but not resolving Novak’s storyline—and because I stand by the value of strong episodic storytelling. But as Mindy’s randomly introduced friend Maggie observes, Mindy’s relationship with Brendan—and I’d argue the episode as a whole—was “just filling dead space.” Despite technically being more focused than it was before, the show has been too scattered over the course of its run for the basic narrative drive of Mindy wanting to be in a relationship to sustain my interest. The show can shed as many characters as it wants—Ed Weeks sure hasn’t had much to do recently—but it also needs to return to Mindy’s character and give her a more fully developed narrative purpose to make this into a show that doesn’t pile up on my DVR (which is a problem facing all FOX comedies, including New Girl).

Instead, the show is just extending Mindy’s vague dating impulse onto Danny, with Allison Williams' Eyepatch earning back her first name—Jillian—and then breaking up with him. I like Williams a lot, and will gladly allow for any storyline involving a sea lion and a penguin, but Danny’s characterization felt all over the place (even if him only understanding romance through Goodfellas was a nice little gag). While acknowledging that the character can occasionally be a jerk, there has been evidence in the past—the letter to his ex-wife, for example, or any number of scenes with Mindy—that he can be caring when he wants to be. I’d be open to some explanation over why he was being a jerk, but The Mindy Project isn’t interested in why Danny would confuse Korn with Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn.” He’s just another character roped into this crazy thing called love, a reluctant participant in the romantic comedy—or romantic hangout comedy, given the lack of narrative drive—that The Mindy Project has become.

What’s frustrating about this is that the show can be funny. There are different jokes throughout the episode that take the zany romantic comedy focus into fun places, no more than in the sight gag of Ike Barinholtz as Arnold Toht in the concluding scene. But none of the parts of the episode I enjoyed were also parts that convinced me this is a show that needed to be made. It makes me reflect back on why NBC chose to pass on the series to begin with, resulting in the NBC Universal production landing at FOX instead: At the time it was seen as a coup for FOX, but was it possible instead that NBC as a network didn’t see enough of a foundation for a successful comedy series, predicting the retooling that has left the show without a status quo?

“Harry & Sally” did nothing to change the fact that The Mindy Project features funny people and funny moments; unfortunately, I also don’t think it changed the fact that—to paraphrase Ron Howard—I just don’t see it as a television show if this is the status quo the writers have chosen.

Stray observations:

  • Admittedly, next week will be the real test given that Beth Grant will be making her first appearance as a full cast member, but it’s interesting that this episode had nothing to do with the workplace—featuring only a few scenes about relationships set in the workplace—and next week the show is introducing a new character into that setting. I will be curious to see how this two-episode run will set the tone for what’s to come—I’m reserving any final judgment until then.
  • I’ll say this: I really want to know what Mindy and Morgan had planned for Arnold Toht.
  • As much as I appreciate the meta moment where Danny calls Mindy on having a seemingly endless collection of best friends from college, Mary Grill’s wheelchair-bound Maggie was nothing but a series of cast jokes at this point. I miss Anna Camp not because that character was particularly interesting, but rather because she was refreshingly normal in a show that’s becoming wackier (also known as Barinholtzier).
  • I'd like to officially congratulate Zoe Jarman, who played Poppy on the criminally overlooked Huge, on winning the coveted “Last Non-Doctor Standing” award. I wonder if there's a prize.
  • Whoever put the glow-in-the-dark solar system on my ceiling, similar to Mindy, definitely abandoned any actual constellational accuracy at some point.
  • Thanks to David—or have y’all completely stripped his first name from him in these parts?—for allowing me to step in this evening.

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